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Opinion: Time to Revamp NJ's Costly, Segregated School System for Special-Needs Kids

Beyond recommendations and committees, transforming today's separate and unequal approach to special education demands a cultural shift

laura waters
Laura Waters

Everyone’s beating up on New Jersey’s special education system.

Earlier this year a federal district court judge approved an agreement that requires the state to take “extraordinary measures” to address “one of the most segregated special-education settings in the country.”

Federal and state law mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” ideally within general education classes with appropriate modifications and support, but half of New Jersey’s special-needs children are isolated from their typical peers. One in 10 special-needs students is educated in an out-of-district school, far more than any other state in the country.

Confirming NJ’s segregated system for educating children with disabilities, last month the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) issued a new report entitled “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place.” This analysis offers 20 recommendations that intend to transform a culture that regards special education as a “separate place” to one in which special education is simply a continuum of therapies and supports provided to children with disabilities.

Over at the Statehouse, Gov. Chris Christie just christened yet another task force to address special education woes. Meanwhile, in a 2012 report, the state Department of Education worried that “the demands of an effective review and reconciliation of rates for every [private school for students with disabilities] strains the capacity of the Department’s finance staff.”

That’s fine. The state has promised to abide by the federal court ruling. There’s nothing wrong with another task force. The NJSBA offers important suggestions on student outcomes, systemic inefficiencies, and an overreliance on litigation to settle disputes between parents and districts. The state DOE can get over itself and provide a higher degree of accountability.

But a cultural shift will take more than recommendations and committees. How can we make substantive changes that respectfully serve the widely variable educational needs of students with disabilities without reflexively -- and unlawfully -- segregating them from their communities?

The first step is to squarely face the fiscal unsustainability of the current culture. According to New Jersey NJSBA data (vintage 2007: the age of the data is a symptom of the problem), the annual costs of special education are more than $3.3 billion per year; the primary cost drivers are tuition for and transportation to our segregated, out-of-district schools. The costs continue to climb, increasing 8 percent from 2008 - 2009 to 2011- 2012, double the increase in general education.

The second step is to start thinking about private special education schools and traditional schools as partners. Placement doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Educating our most fragile children requires a collaborative approach that encourages innovation, equity, and accountability.

In that spirit, here are two suggestions within the context of autism education, one of the most “high cost” disabilities, and of special concern in New Jersey. The federal Centers for Disease Control just reported that nationally one in 68 children is “on the spectrum” but in New Jersey, it’s one in 45, the highest rate in the country.

No. 1: According to the NJSBA, this year 14,502 students have a diagnosis of autism and of these, only 20 percent spend most of their day in general education classrooms. Almost 4,000 children with autism are segregated in separate schools.

The state publishes an annual list of approved tuition for private special education schools. Seven of the 10 most expensive schools are those that serve children with autism. Tuition runs from $438 to $558 per day. Four are clustered in wealthy Bergen County, where parents have the resources to be particularly proactive and litigious in acquiring placements for their children. Students can attend these schools from age three to 21. That’s $112,000 per year (for about 220 days) and over $2 million per child for 18 years.

These schools offer a highly-regarded intervention called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which requires one teacher for each student engaged in intense rote instruction for 30-40 hours per week. Many public schools also offer ABA, but not with comparable intensity because they’re bound by institutional logistics and union contracts that preclude those long school days. In addition, our plethora of small districts often precludes assembling a cohort of children who require similar instruction.

Perhaps there’s an opening here for charter schools, which have the flexibility to lengthen instructional time without contract negotiations, and are more tightly regulated by the state than private special education schools. Could a charter operator serve this fragile population more cost-effectively by scaling up services for a wide catchment area? Alternatively, should we require private special-education schools to reflect the demographics of surrounding communities, as we do with charter schools? Could successful schools open up satellite campuses within districts to encourage community integration?

No. 2: While public education has warily accepted the need for measuring curricular and instructional effectiveness through student outcomes, special education remains insulated from this trend. There are good reasons for this. The academic growth of typically developing children spans a relatively short curve compared to children with disabilities. Typical third-graders read at anywhere from a first- to fifth-grade level. The reading abilities of third-grade children with moderate to severe disabilities can span from basic pattern recognition to fluency.

With such variability, how do we measure academic success? When a child with autism or multiple disabilities learns to make eye contact or use the toilet reliably, teachers and parents celebrate. How do you place value on that kind of progress?

We’ve got to try. Embedded in NJSBA’s report is a call for a “student outcome centered” approach” and a new “outcomes-based paradigm.” It’s education reform for special education. The Obama administration backs up this paradigm shift. A new section on the U.S. Department of Education’s website notes that the government is "currently rethinking its accountability system in order to shift the balance from a system focused primarily on compliance to one that puts more emphasis . . . on educational results and functional outcomes for children with disabilities."

Time for the NJ DOE to start collecting data. Do children who attend those $500-a-day schools achieve better outcomes in adulthood -- increased independence, ability to work or socialize appropriately -- than those who go to traditional in-district programs? Can our private special education schools collaborate with the state and local districts to create data-driven analyses of best practices? Integrating children requires integrating information.

There will always be children with disabilities who require segregated settings. In New Jersey we’ve taken it too far, and mired ourselves in legal, ethical, and fiscal complications. Parents of special-needs kids (I am one) struggle everyday to find that elusive path that leads to inclusion in this wide world.

There’s no better place to start than in school.

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